I am puzzled by the use of the word “artistic”, especially in photography. Many people seem to make a distinction, albeit an incorrect one in my opinion, between “art” and “artistic”. This sometimes goes to paradoxical levels as if art and artistic live in separate domains. Think about it, artistic means “characteristic of art or artists;” and artist means “a person skilled in one of the fine arts;” and art, “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also: works so produced”. (Definitions are from Websters.com) So, once a piece of art is created “artistic” becomes an inseparable part of it.
With apologies for some simplification, art encompasses all endeavors that try to use symbols to communicate with others to affect their emotions, senses, and sensibilities. It may take various forms depending on the medium used and qualities dictated by the formal (related to form, not the opposite of “casual”) constraints of the medium.
This being the case, my puzzlement stems from the willingness of the photographers, photographic writers, and magazines, software producers to separate photography from art, photographic from artistic. It is common to see references to “straight” and “artistic” photography, even two versions of the same photograph. Does that mean Edward Weston’s landscapes or nudes are not artistic? Of course not!
For some, a photograph with the formal qualities of the medium; like frame, tonality, texture, line, shape, focus, vantage point, etc, etc; it is not enough for the work to be art, and the expression, artistic. If, however, one takes the same photograph, smudges the colors, adds more grain and lines, stretches and distorts the photograph, and subjects it to many other treatments it becomes “artistic”. This sort of sensibility is similar to many photographers’, what I call, “brush-envy” by trying to achieve “painterly” results in their photography. (See earlier related post) Now, let me be clear, I am not objecting to the idea of using photography in creative ways, to explore the effects of movement over time, the interplay between colors and framing, and many other types of photography. I am primarily against calling these results “painterly” or “artistic” while snubbing the medium used to create them: Photography.
I am a photographer, I understand and accept what photography can and cannot do, and am perfectly happy within the boundaries of its formal qualities. My photography is my art and my photographs are as artistic as one that is converted to neon-colored fields plowed by aggressive brushes. I do not believe that art and “artistic” need to be exclusively in the domain of strange, bizarre, distorted, reshaped, smudged, and smeared. All these may create a different artistic result without diminishing the artistic value of the original photograph. Look at photographs, photography, and photographers in the same way that you do for paintings, painting, painters; or sculptures, sculpting, sculptors. All represent artwork, their medium, and their artists.
I think, but I may very well be wrong, the problem can be traced to two things. First, photography is “so simple, anyone can do it.” Second, people seem to limit the “signs of artistry” to brushstrokes, chisel marks, and imaginary works. Yes, the mechanical production of a photographic image is indeed very simple. But, the knowledge of the medium and its qualities elude many photographers let alone many who view their work. Also, photography does not leave a mark of distinction when it is practiced at high levels, like brush marks, thus is more difficult to discern between an accidental snapshot and carefully executed photograph. Some think Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand took snapshots. But, make no mistake about it; a well-executed photograph is a work of art without glowing edges or artificial brushstrokes, and its expression, artistic.
The more we photographers allow this practice of misuse, the more we will be marginalized to the edges of art and even pushed outside of it. My belief and practice, and suggestion to other photographers can be summarized as follows: do not refer to any special treatment as “artistic” or imply or state that only that result as “art.” Do not underestimate the “artistic” value of your “straight” photography that may be “realistic” in its “representation.”